How Should We Define Success As A Nation?

The Olympic Slide

Following the completion of the Rio Olympic Games, a theme of concern became evident across the various media platforms in Australia. Our overall medal tally at the Olympic Games has been in decline since it’s peak of 58 in Sydney in 2000, with 49 in Athens in 2004, 46 in Beijing in 2008, 35 in London in 2012, and now 29 in Rio.

The final medal tally in Rio puts Australia in 10th place with 8 gold medals, 11 silver and 10 bronze, well behind the Australian Olympic Committee’s predictions of 13 gold and 37 medals. Australia’s performance still wasn’t too bad considering our population size, but we were miles behind the two countries with the most gold medals. First place was the usual victors, the U.S.A, with 46 gold and 121 medals overall. Second place was the U.K., with 27 gold and 67 medals overall.

Australia is a proud sporting nation, and part of our national identity has taken a hit seeing the sharp decline in Olympic glory this century in comparison to the ongoing ascension of the U.S. and the U.K.. The U.S. have increased their tally from 37 gold and 93 medals in 2000, whilst the U.K. have dramatically improved theirs from 11 gold and 28 medals overall back in Sydney. We used to be better than the U.K., not even that long ago, and now we are not even close. Let’s not even get started on ‘The Ashes’, where we have now lost five of the last seven test cricket series to England dating back to July 2005.

If we were to look at these statistics alone as a measure of a country’s overall success, then it is a worrying trend for Australia and a very positive sign for the U.S. and the U.K.. If we were wanting to reverse this trend, it would be important to figure out exactly what the U.S. and the U.K. are doing right, and try to emulate what they are doing so that we can get closer to their levels of success in the future. It would really come down to spending more taxpayer’s money on:

  1. improved programs to get people to participate more in sport at a young age,
  2. improved facilities to increase opportunities to excel,
  3. improved coaching to help bring out the best in athletes, and
  4. more focused investment towards the sports and top athletes that have the greatest potential of producing multiple gold medals at the Olympic Games.

The problem is that we have already tried to do this, with the Australian Sporting Commission following the lead of the U.K.’s recent success with their own ‘Winning Edge’ program. In the four years leading up to Rio, this program unevenly distributed $340m towards summer Olympic sports, particularly the events that Australia was thought to have a better chance to win in, such as Hockey, which cost us $28million for zero medals.

At over $11million dollars of taxpayers money per medal won in Rio, it becomes important to wonder if the extra cost is really worth it, or if there are better ways that Australia can try to measure ourselves or improve on the world stage?

What if there was a medal tally for non-Sporting indicators of success?

1. Gross Direct Product

Traditionally, apart from Olympic Glory, Nations have utilised their Gross Direct Product (GDP) to compare themselves to other countries and show the world just how successful and prosperous they are. If we were to look at a the nominal GDP of all countries in 2016, the U.S. once again smashes the field and collects the gold medal with $18,558,130 million, China collect the silver with $11,383,030 million, and Japan pick up the bronze with $4,412,600 million. The U.K. come in fifth place with $2,760,960 million, and Australia are lagging behind again in 13th place with $1,200,780 million.

Per capita, the country with the highest GDP is Luxembourg with $101,994, Switzerland are second with $80,675, and Qatar are third with $76,576, based on the 2015 International Monetary Fund 2015 estimates.

If we look at GDP calculations that take into account purchasing power parity (PPP) relative to inflation rates and local costs of goods and services, China picks up the gold, the U.S. are relegated to silver, and India come from nowhere into the bronze medal position. The U.K. drop to 9th, and Australia drop all the way down to 19th.

Per capita adjusted for PPP, Qatar win the gold, Luxembourg pick up the silver, and Singapore take home the bronze, based on the 2015 estimates provided by the International Monetary fund.


2. The Human Development Index

The United Nations no longer believe that GDP should be the sole factor when determining which countries are best at helping their citizens to successfully develop. Taking into account GDP at purchasing power parity (as a measure of standard of living) alongside life expectancy, education and adult literacy levels, it is known as the Human Development Index. Based on the 2015 Human Development Report results, Norway picks up the gold, with Australia claiming the silver, and Switzerland taking home the bronze.

Importantly, Australia’s score has slightly improved both from 2013 to 2014, and 2014 to 2015, a good indication that we are not in an overall decline as a nation. Our ranking has also improved from 4th in 2008 to 2nd from 2009 onward. Meanwhile, the U.S. rank 8th in the world, a big drop from their third place rank in 2013, and the U.K. are 14th, a large jump from 27th in 2013.

Once inequality is taken into account, the average level of human development in Australia is still the second best in the world, with Norway continuing to claim the gold medal, and the Netherlands stepping up to claim bronze. The U.K. drop down to 16th in the world, and the U.S. slide all the way down to 28th.

But what if GDP isn’t the best way to measure a country’s standard of living? What other factors could we also compare countries on to see how we stack up as a nation?

3. The World Happiness Report

The first World Happiness Report was released in April 2012 after  passed a resolution in July 2011 inviting member countries to measure their citizens happiness levels and use these findings to guide their public policies. Reports are now issued each year, with the 2016 report considering 6 main elements to be crucial to how successful we can perceive a Nation to be. These elements are:

  1. GDP per capita
  2. Level of social support
  3. Healthy life expectancy
  4. Freedom to make life choices
  5. Level of generosity
  6. Trust, or perceived absence of corruption in government and business

Based on the results of this report, Denmark wins the gold medal, with Switzerland getting the silver, and Iceland taking home the bronze. Australia is currently in 9th place, with the U.S. 13th, and the U.K. 23rd.

Once again, Australia has improved slightly since the last report, a good indicator that we are not rapidly declining as a country, whereas the U.S. and the U.K. are both on the decline. No country has taken a bigger hit recently than Greece, with their major financial difficulties also beginning to influence the social fabric of the once proud country.

Surely overall Happiness, as measured by these factors, is more important than sporting or Olympic success. Assuming this is true, shouldn’t we be emulating Denmark or the other 7 countries that are ahead of us on this instead of always trying to look up to and compete against the U.S. or the U.K.?


4. The Happy Planet Index

The Happy Planet Index has a slightly different take on what matters most, and to them this is sustainable well-being for all. They combine life expectancy with subjective levels of well-being adjusted for inequality of outcomes within a country, and divide this by their ecological footprint to obtain the overall result on the Happy Planet Index. Most Western Countries fare poorly on this scale, with Costa Rica winning the gold, Mexico the silver, and Colombia the bronze. The U.K. are 34th, with both Australia and the U.S. far behind in 105th and 108th place respectively.

Australia does okay in three out of the four items that make up this scale, coming in 7th place at 82.1 years for life expectancy, 11th place at 8% for inequality, and 12th place at 7.2/10 for subjective well-being, but what really lets us down is our ecological footprint, which is 139th out of the 140 countries included in the data. Only Luxembourg is worse. The U.S. aren’t much better with their ecological footprint, coming in 137th place, whilst the U.K. are slightly better, currently in 107th place. Obviously more needs to be done by these Western countries to reduce the ecological footprint that they are having on our planet. Haiti wins gold for the least ecological footprint, with Bangladesh the silver, and Pakistan the bronze.

For subjective well-being, Switzerland win the gold with a score of 7.8/10, Norway get the silver with 7.7/10, and Iceland claim the bronze with 7.6/10, well ahead of the U.S. in 18th place (7.0/10) and the U.K. (6.9/10).

For inequality, the Netherlands claim the gold with 4%, Iceland the silver with 5%, and Sweden the bronze with 6%. The U.K. are 19th with 9% inequality, and the U.S. are 34th with 13%.

Lastly, for life expectancy, Hong Kong claim the gold with 83.6 years, Japan the silver with 83.2 years, and Italy the bronze with 82.7 years. The U.K. is 24th with an average life expectancy of 80.4 years, slightly ahead of the 31st ranking for the U.S. with 78.8 years.


5. Health System

If we were to think of ways to further improve our quality of life, having a good health system should be a top priority, yet none of the U.K. (18th), Australia (32nd), or the U.S. (37th) can claim a medal based on the World Health Organisation’s 2000 ratings. France get the gold, Italy the silver, and San Marino the bronze.


6. Academic Performance

Equally important to the future of a country should be a good quality of education at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels. Whilst it is true that the U.K. and the U.S. both have many of the top tertiary institutes in the world, when it comes to the 2014 OECD global education rankings, the U.K. are 20th for maths and science, and 23rd for reading, whilst the U.S. are 28th for maths and science, and 24th for reading. Australia don’t fare much better, coming in at 14th in maths and science, and 13th in reading.

More worryingly, Australia has dropped from 6th in maths, 8th in science and 4th in reading in the year 2000. When it comes to schooling, we really do seem to be declining as a nation, and are now 17th for percentage of students acquiring at least the basic skills in these areas, and 19th in secondary school enrollment rates, behind both the U.S. and the U.K..

For reading, China claim the gold medal, with Singapore collecting the silver, and Japan the bronze. For maths and science, Singapore claim the gold, Hong Kong the silver, and South Korea the bronze. South Korea were very similar in their academic performance to Australia back in 2000. Although their increase and our decrease may not seem like such a big deal, a 25 point improvement on what is known as the PISA tests would lead to an approximate expansion of $4.8 trillion to Australia’s GDP by the year 2095. Clearly, education matters.


7. Global Gender Gap Index

Based on the 2015 data, Iceland win the gold with the least gender gap between males and females of 88.1%. Norway the silver with 85%, and Finland the bronze, with 85% also. The U.K. rank 18th with 75.8%, the U.S. 28th with 74%, and Australia 36th with 73.33%.

In regards to the gender gap, Australia has improved in their score from 72.41% in 2008, but have dropped 15 places from 21st in the rankings over that seven year time span, meaning that we are closing the gap at a much slower rate than a lot of other countries. We’re now 32nd in economic participation and opportunity, 1st in educational attainment, 74th in health and survival, and 61st in terms of political empowerment.


8. LGBTIQ Rights

Based on the first countries to legally recognise same sex-unions, Denmark gets the gold, Norway the silver, and Sweden the bronze.

In order to qualify for a medal, these countries also had to have legalised same-sex marriage, allow same-sex couples to adopt a child, LGB individuals to openly serve in their military, ban all anti-gay discrimination, and have legal documents be amended based on an individual’s recognised gender without the need for surgery or hormone therapy.

The U.K. nearly ticks all of these items, except same sex marriage is still illegal in Northern Ireland. Same sex marriage is still banned in Australia, and joint adoption is still banned in South Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory. Apart from some tribal jurisdictions, the U.S. now has legalised marriage, but still has some laws that discriminate based on gender identity and expression.

75% of Australian’s support marriage equality for all people, regardless of sexual preferences or gender expression, but instead of having a referendum to vote on it now, we are having a plebiscite, where the nation votes, but the government isn’t legally bound to do anything about the results. If you want to join in on protesting this, please check out the following GetUp! campaign.


9. Refugee Resettlement Actions

By the end of 2014, one out of every 122 people were internally displaced, a refugee, or seeking asylum, with half of these refugees being children. Wars, persecution and ongoing conflict now means that we have more people than ever before trying to reach safety and begin their new lives in a foreign land, with 59.5 million being forcibly displaced in 2014 alone. Due to their close proximity to Syria, both Lebanon and Turkey are taking in huge amounts of refugees annually, with 1.59 million Syrian refugees in Turkey at the end of 2014, and more than 25% of Lebanon’s overall population are Syrian as of the 24th of September 2015.

Based on this article, Germany should win gold, Sweden silver and the U.S. bronze. Meanwhile, the recent Brexit scandal was related to the U.K. not wanting to take on as many refugees and immigrants, and Australia’s treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, especially the children, is so notoriously bad that China (not always the best for human rights issues) and the United Nations are publicly speaking out against it. To help end the business of abuse related to refugees and asylum seekers in Australia, please sign this pledge.


10. Freedom of Press

Based on the 2008 results, Finland and Iceland both get the gold medal, with Denmark and Norway taking home the bronze. The U.S. have are the 9th best, followed by the U.K. in 10th, and Australia in 13th.


11. Lowest Infant Mortality Rates

According to the 2015 estimates provided by the CIA World Factbook, Monaco win the gold with 1.81 deaths per 1000 live births, Iceland win the silver with 2.06, and Norway and Singapore both claim the bronze with 2.48 per 1000 live births. Australia are 31st, with 4.43, the U.K. are 32nd with 4.44, and the U.S. are 50th with 6.17 deaths per 1000 live births.


12. Soundness of Banks

Based on the 2009 World Economic Forum rankings on a scale from 1 (banks need more money) to 7 (banks are generally sound), Canada pick up the gold with a score of 6.7/7, New Zealand the silver with 6.6/7, and Australia the bronze with 6.6/7. The U.S. come in at 108th with a score of 4.7/7, and the U.K. are 126th with a score of 3.8/7. Resilient financial systems are crucial for economic stability, and unstable or unregulated systems were the main culprits in the 2008 financial crisis.


13. Unemployment Levels

Based on 2015 figures, Qatar get the gold with 0.4%, Cambodia the silver with 0.5%, and Belarus, according to their 2014 figures, get the bronze with 0.7%. By March 2016, Australia’s unemployment rate is 5.8%, slightly worse from its 31st ranking in 2013 with 5.7%. In 2013, the U.K. and U.S. were 44th and 45th with 7.3% each, but as of July 2016, the U.K. have improved their rate to 4.9%, and the U.S. have improved theirs to 5.0% by April 2016. Relative to the rest of the world, Australia is declining in terms of unemployment too.


And the overall winner is… Norway!


Final medal tally:

Country Gold (3 pts) Silver (2 pts) Bronze (1 pt) Total points
Norway II III II 14
Iceland II II II 12
Switzerland I II I 8
China (excl. Hong Kong) II I 8
Denmark II I 7
Qatar II I 7
Singapore I I II 7
U.S.A I I I 6
Australia II I 5
Hong Kong I I 5
Luxembourg I I 5
Netherlands I I 4
Finland I I 4
Japan I II 4
Sweden I II 4
Italy I I 3
Costa Rica





















New Zealand











South Korea



San Marino













U.K. 0



Australia is doing alright. We aren’t the best country in the world in any of the important issues that I’ve analysed, and depending on what it is, we could learn a lot from whoever is ahead of us in the rankings, especially Norway and Iceland. This would be much better than always just trying to emulate the U.S. or the U.K., or overreacting to the media every time they catastrophise and tell us that the apocalypse is near.

Worldwide murder rates (per capita) have continued to decline since the fourteenth century, especially since the 1970s, and greater levels of equality and rights continue to be achieved across the globe for different races, ethnic groups, females, spouses, children, people with disabilities, and animals, with some countries obviously being more progressive than others.

Australia still has a long way to go as a Nation, especially when it comes to obesity levels, mental health, climate change policy, indigenous health and well-being, LGBTIQ rights, gender equality, our refugee and immigration policy, and essentially any other area where people are treated unequally or discriminated against.

At least with the National Broadband System a greater percentage of the population will have access to a reliable internet connection, which can help more people to become informed, talk about the important issues through social media, put more pressure on the politicians, and bring about more rapid social change.

I invite you all to speak up, take action, and follow in Mahatma Gandhi’s footsteps in being the change that you wish to see in the world.


Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

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